When a girl or teenager becomes pregnant, her life completely changes, as does the lives of her family and those around her. It has also been proven that these women face great social and educational barriers.
However, both in Latin America and in the rest of the world, teenage pregnancies often occur because of two factors: the lack of access to quality sex education and the lack of prevention and contraceptive services. In other words, these pregnancies are a consequence of a lack of information, limited access to contraceptives and sexual and gender-based violence.
In addition to these factors, there is social stigma and a lack of knowledge about the subject. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) teenage pregnancy disrupts women’s education and opportunities in life and drives them into a vicious cycle of poverty.
Teenage women’s bodies are not yet developed to go through the process of pregnancy and childbirth without long-term consequences. In fact, in this type of pregnancy there is a greater risk of rupture of the uterus and other organs, and therefore there is an increased risk of death for both the mother and the baby.
Similarly, the younger the mother, the more likely the baby is to be malnourished or to suffer from developmental disorders or malformations. Plus, these babies are 50 % more likely to die in their first few weeks of life. As for the mother, there are risks of preeclampsia, high mortality, contracting sexually transmitted diseases and also see a lack of medical care due to unknown pregnancies.
Currently, the majority of births to teenage mothers occur in East Asia, followed by West Africa and Latin America. Nevertheless, there are limited databases to understand this phenomenon around the world, which also makes it more difficult for governments to take concrete actions to mitigate these pregnancies.
Situation in Latin America
Latin America has the second highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the world, with about 18 % of births to teenage mothers under 20. In figures, each year one and a half million adolescent women between the ages of 15 and 19 have babies in the region.
Although worldwide the numbers of teenage pregnancies are falling, in the Latin American region they remain stable. In fact, the NGO, Save the Children, explained that some pregnancies in girls under 14 are planned, as it is an alternative to future unemployment. In addition, they found that in the region, young mothers are more likely to be single after having their children.
On the other hand, half of the teenage mothers in the region are engaged in domestic work, as they tend to drop out of school, a phenomenon that occurs especially in lower-income families. At the same time, they have three times less chance of obtaining a university degree than other women.
The region also records the second highest fertility rate among women aged 15-19 in the world. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) found that many countries prohibit providing contraceptive methods to teenagers. This is one of the reasons behind the high pregnancy rates.
Actions to prevent it
The first action that decision-makers must take together with the health sector is to develop suitable sexual and reproductive health for adolescents. Therefore, programs should be designed as to encourage contraception before these teenagers become sexually active.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) strongly recommend FDA-approved contraceptives, especially long-term ones such as intrauterine devices and implants, which are reversible. This should, if possible, be accompanied by a discussion of the adolescent reproductive goals with a health professional, so that the needs of each individual can be met.
It is also important to empower young women. One of the most powerful tools for doing so is education. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that ensuring access of girls and women to schools and universities reduces fertility rates, delays the age of marriage and the first pregnancy, and allows a greater participation of women in the labour market and in all fields in general.
Similarly, girls’ empowerment has long-term impacts in countries with better economies and more equitable societies. For every dollar spent on educational programs, five dollars are received by the economy. However, it should not be forgotten that despite the efforts made so far, there are still many gender inequities in the world that drive teenage pregnancy.
On the other hand, the scientific community of Frontiers found that health systems that offer sex education and contraception programs should train their medical personnel in order to raise awareness, change attitudes and develop skills to better understand the needs of adolescents.
This should be accompanied by friendlier medical facilities, such as health centers that promote doctor-patient confidentiality, service hours outside school hours, and lower fees that adolescents can pay if their parents or guardians are not supportive.
Finally, governments must push forward laws to prevent women under 18 from getting married, since 30% of women in developing countries get married before that age. It is also important to raise awareness about sexual coercion among adolescents, because many girls and women are pressured into having sex by friends and family.
In conclusion, teenage pregnancy figures in Latin America are still very high and show a lack of actions from governments. However, it has been shown that these pregnancies are preventable and can be reduced if decision-makers, together with health professionals, create joint projects and goals with the help of science to better serve this population.